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Eyes on Trump and the US Midterms: Crossroads for American Politics? – Nippon.com

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Veteran journalist and Washington watcher Aida Hirotsugu discusses the significance of the upcoming US midterm elections for Trumpism and the partisan realignment that is transforming US politics.

The November 8 US midterm elections are right around the corner, and the congressional races are drawing worldwide attention as a measure of the power and influence of former President Donald Trump. During the primary elections to choose the two major parties’ candidates, Trump tightened his control over the Republican Party (GOP) in hopes of recapturing the White House in 2024. Meanwhile, federal and local authorities are pursuing multiple investigations into Trump’s conduct, including alleged election interference, the president’s role in the January 6 insurrection, and the removal of classified documents from the White House. Concerns about a Trump comeback and its implications for American democracy are exacerbating global angst in a world already deeply shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Perils of Midterm Elections

The US midterm elections take place once every four years, at the halfway point between presidential elections. They are held to fill all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and one-third of the 100 Senate seats (35 this time around). Also up for grabs on November 8 are 36 out of 50 state governorships, along with other state and local posts.

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Historically, the president’s party has tended to lose ground in these elections. Since 1950, the governing party has lost an average of 3 Senate seats and 25 House seats per midterm election. In 2010, halfway through the first term of the relatively popular President Barack Obama, the Democratic Party lost 6 Senate seats and a full 63 House seats.

Although the popularity of the incumbent president certainly plays a part, local issues frequently dominate state and local election campaigns, making the results unreliable predictors of the presidential election to come. What makes this midterm special?

Biden and the Double-Edged Abortion Ruling

One factor is President Joe Biden’s extraordinarily low numbers. In July, his public job approval rating dropped to 37% (according to RealClearPolitics), placing him alongside Trump as one of the least popular presidents of the post–World War II era. A July New York Times/Siena College poll found that 64% of Democratic voters wanted someone other than Biden to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2024. The biggest factor behind the latest slump in the president’s approval ratings is doubtless inflation, which hit 9% in June for the first time in 40 years and has outpaced growth in wages.

The Democratic Party currently maintains a razor-thin majority in Congress, controlling 220 out of 435 seats in the House and just half of the 100 Senate seats, with the vice-president acting as tie-breaker. A few months ago, pundits looked at Biden’s approval ratings and predicted heavy midterm losses for the Democrats, but recent trends have raised the Democrats’ hopes somewhat. Gasoline prices have fallen from their spring peak, helping to blunt inflation. Moreover, the Democratic-led Congress has passed significant legislation, including the $430 billion Inflation Reduction Act (a much smaller package than Biden had originally proposed but an achievement nonetheless), new gun control legislation, and a law authorizing government funding for semiconductor research and production. Biden is also wooing young voters with a student loan forgiveness plan announced on August 24. Earlier in the month, the president confirmed the death of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a CIA counterterrorism operation in Kabul (as if in compensation for the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan that so damaged his standing a year earlier).

The Democrats have also received an unexpected boost from the conservative-dominated Supreme Court’s June 24 ruling reversing the high court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on abortion rights. Religious conservatives had been lobbying for a half century to overturn Roe v. Wade, which established a woman’s right to end her pregnancy any time before the point of fetal viability. But the June decision, initially viewed as a victory for Republicans, has had the effect of rallying the Left and women in general. In a referendum in early August, voters in the solidly conservative state of Kansas voted no on a referendum calling for a state constitutional amendment revoking women’s right to an abortion.

The president’s approval rating has climbed back above 40%, and recent opinion polls show voters roughly divided as to whether they will back a Democratic or Republican congressional candidate in the upcoming election. As of early September, analysts were predicting that the Democrats would maintain their bare majority in the Senate. The GOP is still expected to overtake the Democrats in the House of Representatives, but only by a margin of about 10 seats—far less than the landslide previously predicted. All that said, much could change between now and November 8, particularly with regard to inflation, the single biggest election issue.

Eyes on Trump and His GOP

If Biden’s Democratic Party loses control of Congress, then the nation will face two years of legislative gridlock and political dysfunction. But that may not be the worst of it. The real concern among America watchers worldwide is that Donald Trump will position himself for another successful presidential bid.

Since his 2020 loss to Biden, Trump has continued to consolidate his control over the GOP. Of the 189 Republican candidates Trump endorsed in Senate, House, and gubernatorial primaries up through August 23, 2022, a full 180 will advance to the general election on November 8 (according to the polling website FiveThirtyEight). While most of the 189 were incumbents,10 were non-incumbent “assassin candidates” charged with unseating sitting Republicans who had incurred Trump’s disfavor, and 6 of those “assassins” succeeded in their mission. Prominent among the fallen incumbents was Representative Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice-President Dick Cheney. A stalwart conservative Republican in the traditional mold, Liz Cheney was elected to the House of Representatives from Wyoming in 2020 with more than 70% of the vote. But she sealed her doom with her vigorous public criticism of Trump’s election denial and his role in the January 6 insurrection. In the August 2022 Wyoming Republican primary, she was trounced by one of Trump’s chosen, coming away with less than 30% of the vote. From Trump’s standpoint, such victories are stepping stones to the presidency in 2024. Historically, they testify not only to Trump’s sway over the GOP but also to the retreat of traditional mainstream Republicanism. They also speak to a broader partisan realignment with the potential to transform US politics over the long term (see below).

What makes this election season especially bizarre is the fact that Trump is currently the subject of four separate investigations that could lead to criminal charges. In early August, the Federal Bureau of Investigation searched Trump’s sprawling Mar-a-Lago residence in southern Florida in connection with allegations that he illegally removed classified materials from the White House. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is carrying out a probe paralleling the House hearings on the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and Trump’s role in the event. The Atlanta-area district attorney is leading an inquiry into efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn his 2020 election loss in Georgia. And the Manhattan district attorney is pursuing a criminal investigation of the Trump Organization on allegations that include fraud and tax evasion. All of this is casting a long shadow and adding further uncertainty to the midterms and the presidential election in 2024.

Paradoxically, the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago seems to have had the effect of rallying the GOP troops around the ex-president. In a Morning Consult/Politico poll, 58% of Republican voters said they would vote for Trump if the 2024 presidential primary were held today, up from 54% in July. A record-high 71% said that Trump should run for president in 2024.

With the midterms approaching, top Justice Department officials are said to be considering scaling back their investigations into Trump to avoid the appearance of election interference. One cannot rule out the possibility of an “October surprise”—something like the FBI’s bombshell announcement, days before the 2016 election, that it was reopening its investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. On the whole, however, it seems reasonable to assume that the ultimate aim of the probes is to prevent Trump from winning the presidency in 2024. Under the circumstances, we can expect the authorities to proceed thoroughly and carefully.

Rumblings of Realignment

Ever since Trump was elected president in 2016, there have been clear signs that America’s two-party system is in transition. Even if the names of the two parties stay the same, a major change in the composition of their support base signals a partisan realignment. The Democratic Party is becoming skewed toward America’s college-educated “moneyed elite” and is losing support among working-class voters. Matthew Thomas of the Democratic Socialists of America has produced data indicating a shift in the class composition of the Democratic presidential primary electorate between 2008 and 2020. Focusing on 16 states that held their primaries before the nomination was locked up, he found that counties where the median household income was under $60,000 per year (below the US median) went from contributing 35% of the presidential primary vote in 2008 to just 29% in 2020. Meanwhile, the contribution of counties where the median income was over $80,000 per year rose from 25% to 31%. The DSA has criticized this trend and called on the Democratic Party to strengthen its focus on workers and the redistribution of wealth.

Representative Jim Banks of Indiana, chairman of the House Republican Study Committee, echoes Thomas’s findings and is bullish about making the GOP the party of working-class voters. In a March 2021 memo to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Banks cited growth in support for Trump among workers (loosely defined as those without a college degree) between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections—an increase that was not limited to white voters, as is widely assumed. According to the memo, support among Hispanic workers rose from 24% to 36%, while that among working-class African Americans workers went from 9% to 12%. Among those who contributed to presidential campaigns in 2020, he wrote, Trump was the choice of 79% of mechanics and 60% of small business owners. Biden, by contrast, secured the support of 86% of marketing professionals and 73% of bankers. Based on such data, the policy group calls on the Republican Party to “permanently become the party of the working class.”

Further evidence of such realignment can be seen in the positions of certain promising young Republican politicians with their eyes on the post-Trump era. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri has called for a $15 alternative minimum wage—a measure also promoted by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described democratic socialist. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has endorsed a unionization drive by workers at the online retailing giant Amazon. Such developments are suggestive of an incipient reversal of roles between the GOP, long known for its ties to big business, and the Democrats, traditionally supported by organized labor. Meanwhile, centrists have joined forces to launch a third political party. In the run-up to the 2022 midterms, we may be witnessing the beginnings of a historic upheaval in US party politics.

(Originally published in Japanese on September 12, 2022. Banner photo: US President Joe Biden touts his plan to reduce gun violence in an address at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on August 30, 2022. ©AFP/Jiji.)

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Jason Kenney quits Alberta politics with critical letter on state of democracy

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Former Alberta premier Jason Kenney stepped down as the Member of the Legislative Assembly for Calgary-Lougheed late Tuesday afternoon.

“Thank you to my constituents for the honour of representing them in Parliament and the Legislature over the past 25 years,” Kenney said in a tweet also containing a statement.

The resignation came two hours after the throne speech for the Fall session was read inside the legislature, which Kenney was not present for.

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Kenney said he is proud of the work done while he was the leader but with a new government in place under Premier Danielle Smith — who replaced him as leader of the UCP in October — and a provincial election coming in May 2023, now is the best time for him to step aside as MLA.

“This decision brings to an end over 25 years of elected service to Albertans and Canadians,” he said.

“I would like to thank especially the people of south Calgary for their support over nine elections to Parliament and the legislature, beginning in 1997. Thank you as well to the countless volunteers, staff members and public servants who have supported me throughout the past two and a half decades of public service.”

Kenney said in the future he hopes to continue contributing to democratic life but chose to close his resignation letter with a scathing reflection of the state of politics.

“Whatever our flaws or imperfections, Canada and I believe Alberta are in many ways the envy of the world. This is not an accident of history.”

Kenney went on to provide the following statement:

“We are the inheritors of great institutions built around abiding principles which were generated by a particular historical context. Our Westminster parliamentary democracy, part of our constitutional monarchy, is the guardian of a unique tradition of ordered liberty and the rule of law, all of which is centred on a belief in the inviolable dignity of the human person and an obligation to promote the common good. How these principles are applied to any particular issue is a matter of prudent judgment.

“But I am concerned that our democratic life is veering away from ordinary prudential debate towards a polarization that undermines our bedrock institution and principles.

“From the far left we see efforts to cancel our history, delegitimize our historically grounded institutions and customs and divide society dangerously along identity lines. And from the far right we see a vengeful anger and toxic cynicism which often seeks to tear things down, rather than build up and improve our imperfect institutions.”

“As I close 25 years of public service, I do so with gratitude for those who built this magnificent land of opportunity through their wisdom and sacrifice. And I’m hopeful that we will move past this time of polarization to renew our common life together in this amazing land of limitless opportunity.”

Kenney announced his intention to step down as the leader of the United Conservative Party on May after he received 51.4 percent support in his leadership review vote.

Earlier Tuesday, Smith was sworn in as the new member for Brooks-Medicine Hat after winning a byelection for the seat earlier this month.

It was her first time back on the floor of the legislature chamber since the spring of 2015.

At that time, Smith was with the Progressive Conservatives, having led a mass floor-crossing of her Wildrose Party months earlier. She failed to win a nomination for the PCs in 2015 and returned to journalism as a radio talk show host for six years.

Kenney remained a backbencher UCP legislature member until his resignation. It’s not yet known when a byelection will be held in Calgary-Lougheed.

Kenney joins a long list of Alberta conservative leaders sidelined following middling votes in leadership reviews.

Former Progressive Conservative premier Ralph Klein left after getting 55 percent of the vote in 2006. Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford received 77 percent in their reviews but stepped down from the top job when the party pushed back.

— With files from The Canadian Press

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Murray Mandryk: Today’s partisan politics abandons all common sense

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Long abandoned is the principle in politics that politicians are there to represent everyone…even those that didn’t vote for you.

Politics: The art of abandoning all manner of common sense and principle in favour of convincing your own supporters what you’re doing is just and true while what your opponent promotes simply isn’t.

That’s probably cynical and unhelpful.

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Sadly, though, it’s neither as cynical nor as destructively divisive as much of what we see every day from politicians themselves whose only interest is in catering to their respective bases.

Long abandoned is the principle in politics that politicians are there to represent everyone…even those that didn’t vote for you.

Today’s politics is tribalism and, sadly, this cuts across party lines…although that observation is, evidently, now considered offensive to members themselves.

We’re not like that — they are.

Let us review, beginning with the latest from the federal Liberals. By definition, liberals (small l) are supposedly respectful and accepting of behaviour and opinions different from their own, open to new ideas and, promote individual rights, civil liberties, democracy and free enterprise.

Unless, of course, there are political points to be scored with your large urban base.

Consider the last-minute amendments to the latest federal gun-control bill that stands to criminalize millions of firearms now used by Canadian hunters.

The amendment would ban “a firearm that is a rifle or shotgun, that is capable of discharging centrefire ammunition in a semi-automatic manner and that is designed to accept a detachable cartridge magazine with a capacity greater than five cartridges of the type for which the firearm was originally designed.”

For those unfamiliar, that’s pretty much all hunting rifles and shotguns that aren’t pump, bolt or lever-action.

Essentially, this would ban all forms of semi-automatic firearms except for tube-style duck hunting shotguns — far in excess of the how Bill C-21 was pitched as a targeting of the sale of Canadian handguns (no mention of long guns was even in the initial draft bill).

This goes much further than the Liberals’ failed gun registry of 30 years ago, angering hunters, target shooters and of course, conservatives. It’s almost as if irritating the latter was the point.

The changes drew the expected angry response from Western Conservative politicians including Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe — which only seems to fortify the Liberal notion that somehow what they are doing is right.

But what happens when they are not?

The ongoing problem with illegal guns crossing the U.S. border, 3D printers capable of producing all manner of weaponry and light sentences for violent crimes would seem far bigger threats than a hunting rifle locked up for 364 days a year.

But in today’s tribal political world, it’s not about common-sense solutions. It’s about the virtues you are signalling to your base, which takes us to today’s conservatives defined by preserving traditions, institutions and following rules of law.

Or at least until it’s their ox being gored as we are seeing at the Emergencies Act inquiry. Then it becomes about justifying all behaviour and lawlessness … as long as it was aimed at the Liberal government.

It was bad enough that we saw in January elected politicians like Moe writing letters of support to Freedom Convoy organizers — some of whom were subsequently criminally charged.

But the same Conservative politicians who cavorted and emboldened protester organizers are now eagerly engaging in political revisionism. To hell with what the people of Ottawa endured. Senator Denise Batters claims she “personally never felt safer.”

And those criminally charged with obstruction? The plethora of other actions meritorious of criminal charges and the very real threats at border crossings? A figment of Liberal and/or RCMP imaginations?

Of course, that has now been superseded by the battiness of convoy protest lawyer Brendan Miller being sued for accusing someone of being al Liberal provocateur who waved a Nazi flag just to make the protesters look bad.

But this, too, is easily justifiable when you can view everything through a lens of extreme partisanship rather than common sense that’s seemingly no longer required in politics.

Mandryk is the political columnist for the Regina Leader-Post and the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

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The U.S. and Iran beef is what politics has become at the World Cup

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United States head coach Gregg Berhalter and Tyler Adams attend a press conference on the eve of the group B World Cup soccer match between Iran and the United States in Doha, Qatar, on Nov. 28.The Associated Press

Over the weekend, U.S. Soccer sent out social-media posts containing an altered Iranian flag. Two lines of Islamic script and the country’s emblem had been stripped from it. A spokesperson for the American team said the change had been made to show support for Iranian women.

Iran has had a torrid first week in Qatar. Its Portuguese coach, Carlos Queiroz, devotes huge chunks of his near-daily remarks to alternately lashing the team’s critics and begging them to back off.

Here was a main chance to change the story, courtesy of their old enemy. The fight is so silly, you’re tempted to think the two teams – who play each other on Tuesday – cooked it up together.

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Iran saw the provocation from the U.S. and raised it. It demanded FIFA suspend the American team for 10 games – effectively eliminating it from the World Cup. FIFA ignored it.

On Sunday, in the midst of a U.S. news conference, an Iranian journalist scolded America’s media operation, telling it to “respect international media.”

“This is World Cup, not MLS Cup,” he said.

The presser was cut short.

By Monday, Iranian journalists were pressing American manager Gregg Berhalter to move the U.S. Fifth Fleet out of the Persian Gulf. Shockingly, Berhalter doesn’t have any juice with the Navy.

Berhalter explained that neither he nor his players knew anything about the flag flap, but still apologized for it. No one wanted to hear it. This is what happens when athletes become political advocates. Everyone ends up looking clueless.

FIFA has spent years trying to strip the World Cup of its political symbolism and replace it with a commodified, pop-culture, politics-lite. That would be the sort of politics that gooses viewership, but doesn’t upset anyone.

It hasn’t helped itself by placing the event in military autocracies (Argentina 1978), functional dictatorships (Russia 2018), and developing nations that can’t afford to host it (a few).

A high-water mark for political tensions created by soccer goings-on was the 1982 semi-final, France vs. Germany. The two nations didn’t like each other going in. They liked each other much less after watching their countrymen kick the tar out of each other for 120 minutes. At one point, the German goalkeeper delivered a flying knee to an onrushing French player, knocking out several teeth.

Afterward, the German – Harald Schumacher – was told about the missing teeth. “I’ll pay for the crowns,” Schumacher said, glibly.

That went over as well as you’d imagine. Tensions mounted to a postwar high. The Germans learned the French hadn’t really forgiven them, and the French figured out they were still piping hot over it.

The situation was only defused when the then German chancellor publicly apologized to his French counterpart. The incident – referred to as ‘The Tragedy of Seville,’ after the city in which the match was played – remains a potent touchstone in both countries.

That was back when politics in sports had guardrails. You only went so far, for fear that a shouting match might become a shooting match.

Those limits have come off in recent years. People feel perfectly entitled – compelled, even – to show up at events such as this and start delivering speeches and tossing around insults.

As usual, FIFA is mostly to blame. By inveigling teams to engage in soft advocacy, it has persuaded the human brands in its temporary employ to speak the sort of truth that makes sponsors comfortable. But once the complaints get anywhere near the money, FIFA becomes a stickler for rules as written.

So, ‘OneLove’ armbands? Out. ‘No Discrimination’ armbands? In.

What does ‘no discrimination’ mean? Who, exactly, are these people who are for discrimination? When’s that press conference, because I’d like to attend it.

‘No discrimination’ means less than nothing, because it pretends to be something. Proper protest is organic. It isn’t approved by the marketing department, then sent off to the printers to be colour-matched and sized for overnight delivery.

After FIFA nixed the armbands, Germany came up with its own stunt. During the prematch team photo ahead of its first game, German players put their hands over their mouths. Presumably, this means they can’t speak their minds. Who exactly this is a shot at – FIFA? The state of Qatar? The World Cup writ large? – wasn’t defined.

And yet, they can speak. They’ve got cameras on them every hour of the day. People are itching to tell their stories. The German players haven’t been prevented from speaking. They’ve opted not to speak because they fear sanction.

So what is it? You’re taking a principled stand, or you’re doing a photo op? You can’t have both.

Now you’ve got USA and Iran taking pops at each other for kicks, hoping a few callbacks to the bad old days will jazz up their current sports chances.

Is it now totally out there to say this stuff ought not be taken so lightly? You want to start an international slapping contest with a sovereign country? Maybe your foreign service should be the one doing that, rather than the guy who runs the Instagram account at U.S. Soccer.

If you’re the United States of America, maybe don’t do that at all. You’re in no moral position to lecture anyone else.

But stripped of actual menace, that’s what politics has become at the World Cup (as well as the Olympics). It’s gamesmanship. It’s theatre. It’s for funsies.

And it can be fun. Until one day, something silly that happens here leaks out into the real world, where everyone doesn’t slap hands and trade jerseys when the game ends.

You feel like protesting the injustice inherent in staging this World Cup in this place? Or how your opponents comport themselves? How about not coming?

Why not apply the same standards of total commitment to your protesting that you do to your play? Otherwise, make room for serious people willing to take actual risks.

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